Private Responses to the Famine

Contributors: CK.

1. Private relief work, abroad and at home

One of the remarkable aspects of the Great Famine was the amount of private relief collected on behalf of the Irish poor, especially following the second crop failure in 1846. Although this money is difficult to quantify, at least £2,000,000 was raised. A small part of the money was sent to the Scottish poor because the potato crop had also failed in the Highlands of Scotland. During earlier food shortages, in 1822 and 1831, charitable bodies had been set up to provide relief at a local level. Remarkably, the relief given after 1846 was international: donations came from all over the world, even from people who had no connection with Ireland. It cut across religious, national, and economic differences. Help came from groups who were themselves poor, including former slaves in the Caribbean and native Americans in the United States. Heads of states were also involved—for example, Queen Victoria, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and the President of the United States.

There was extensive fund raising in Ireland from all sections of society. Resident landlords were generally involved, although many absentees were criticised for their indifference. Even children were fund raising; for example, pupils in a school in Armagh City started a subscription for the local poor in 1847. Most private donations and charitable bodies came to an end at the harvest of 1847, partly because donations had started to dry up, but also because people believed the Famine was over. Though private charity was short-lived, it played a vital role in saving lives.

2. Relief organisations

When the potato blight came back private relief committees were formed in Ireland and Britain. While this was a customary response to distress, the scale of fund raising by the committees formed after 1846 was unusual. The most important ones were the British Relief Association, the General Central Relief Committee, the Irish Relief Association and the Mansion House Committee. Some committees that had helped in the food shortages of 1822 and 1831 were revived.

One of the most successful of the private relief bodies was the British Association for the Relief of Distress in Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland (the British Relief Association). It was formed in London on 1 January 1847 by Lionel de Rothschild, a Jewish banker and philanthropist. Of the money that the Association raised, five-sixths went to Ireland and one-sixth to Scotland. A Polish count, Paul de Strzelecki, was appointed to oversee the distribution of money in Ireland. He refused to take any pay for his services, but he was knighted because the important work he did. One of his most successful schemes was the feeding of children in schools in the west of Ireland. The scheme came to an end in 1848 when the funds of the British Relief Association ran out.

Some private relief organisations were also set up in Ireland, particularly in Belfast and Dublin. One of the largest was the General Central Relief Committee, formed in Dublin on 29 December 1846. By the end of 1847, it had given 1,871 grants, ranging from £10 to £400 and it had distributed £61,767 in all. It included many prominent and influential people. Two of its trustees were the Marquis of Kildare and Lord Cloncurry. It included the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Daniel Murray; the Marquis of Abercorn, the Dean of St Patrick’s, the Earl of Erne, Daniel O’Connell MP, and William Smith O’Brien MP. Charitable organisations were formed in Belfast, for example, the Belfast General Relief Fund founded by leading members of the local Church of Ireland and Presbyterian clergy.

3. Fund raising in Ireland

In folk memory, Irish landlords have generally been condemned for their callous attitude towards their poor tenants. However, the response of landlords was very varied. While some used the distress to evict their tenants, others gave relief in different ways. When the blight came a second time some landlords lowered their rents by 10%. These actions tended to be short-term, especially because landlords themselves had financial problems when taxes rose steeply and income from rents fell.

Most of the charitable efforts of Irish landlords were concentrated on the early months of 1847. The Marquis of Sligo, a liberal landlord, was chairman of a committee that set up a private soup kitchen in Westport in January 1847. He made an opening donation of £100 and promised a subscription of £5 a week. Other local gentry and Church of Ireland clergy contributed, and the opening donation rose to £255. In Co. Down, Lord Roden, a landlord well known for his evangelical views and his involvement in the Orange Order, opened a soup shop on his estate where a soup, made of rice and meal porridge, was sold at a penny a quart and potato cake was sold at 12oz. a penny. Some landlords, such as the Earl of Shannon, also resold soup at less than cost. In Skibbereen, which had been infamous for the sufferings of the people, the Church of Ireland minister, the Rev. Caulfield, was giving 1149 people one free pint of soup each day. In Belfast, a privately funded relief committee in Ballymacarrett gave soup to over 12,000 people daily, about 60% of the local population. On some estates rent was reduced or employment provided. Daniel O’Connell, who owned estates in Co. Kerry, gave his tenants a 50% reduction in rent. Lord and Lady Waterford financed a soup kitchen on their estate, and Maria Edgeworth in Edgworthstown provided free seed to her tenants. The Earl of Devon sent £2,000 and the Duke of Devonshire £100 to help the tenants on their Irish estates. But not all landlords were generous. The absentee landlord, James Robinson donated £1 to the Waterford Union for its soup kitchen. Lord Londonderry, one of the ten richest men in the United Kingdom, who owned land in counties Down, Derry, Donegal and Antrim, in addition to property in Britain, was criticised for his meanness: he and his wife gave £30 to the local relief committee, but spent £150,000 renovating their house.

Within Ireland some groups and individuals were very actively involved in fund raising. The Irish Art Union organised an exhibition of Old Masters and the proceeds were given to various relief organisations. The Irish Benchers gave £1,000 to the General Relief Fund and the Irish Coast Guards raised £429. The brewer Arthur Guinness made two separate donations of £60 and £100.

4. The Society of Friends (Quakers) and relief

The Famine attracted assistance from a wide variety of religions, ranging from Hindus in India to Jews and Baptists in New York. The main Protestant churches in Ireland (Church of Ireland and Presbyterian) were actively involved in collecting and distributing relief. The Society of Friends (Quakers) distinguished themselves in charitable work and are warmly remembered for their famine relief.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Quakers had become a predominantly middle- and upper middle-class body, prominent in textiles, shipping, railways, and retailing. The efforts of Irish and English Quakers such as Jonathan Pim and James Hack Tuke to organise relief works were widely praised. Jonathan Pim (1806–85), was the owner, with his brother William Harvey Pim, of the Dublin firm of Pim Brothers, drapers and textile manufacturers. He was Liberal MP for Dublin 1865–74, the first Irish Quaker to sit in Parliament. James Hack Tuke (1819–96), was a banker and was very active in the distribution of relief in Ireland in 1847 and again in 1880. On both occasions he published widely-read and influential accounts of what he had seen. His experiences in 1847 are recorded in A Visit to Connaught in 1847, where he wrote: ‘The culminating point of man’s physical degradation seems to have been reached in Erris …’. He was accompanied on his relief mission by his fellow Quaker W. E. Forster (later Chief Secretary for Ireland, 1880–82).

The Quakers were motivated by simple Christian charity and their interventions saved many lives. Like many others, they became involved when the blight returned. In November 1846, at the suggestion of Joseph Bewley, the Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends was established in Dublin. Joseph Bewley and the Bewley family were tea and coffee merchants who went on to found their well-known Oriental cafes in Dublin and elsewhere. During the Famine, Bewley was joint secretary with Jonathan Pim, of the Central Relief Committee. In the following month, a sister committee was set up in London. Both committees worked closely with their co-religionists in the United States. Though the Quakers in Ireland were small in number—there were only about 3,000—they played a most important role in providing relief, particularly through soup kitchens. When the government decided to use soup kitchens as the main form of relief in the spring of 1847, the Quakers provided the boilers to make the soup.

The Quakers were particularly effective in informing newspapers in Dublin and Britain of the true situation in the west of Ireland, emphasising the extent of suffering. At the beginning of 1847, the Committee warned that unless more food was made available millions of lives would be lost and it stated that ‘those who are guilty of neglect in these particulars will be responsible before man, and we venture to add, before an all-just Providence.’

The Quakers were also successful in raising money outside Ireland, especially in Britain and the United States. Unlike many other charitable bodies, their involvement did not end in 1847. Their donations amounted to over £83,000. Almost 2000 individual grants ranging from £10 to £400, were distributed through Protestant and Catholic clergymen. The largest grants, over £20,000, were made in Connacht, although over £11,000 was donated to Ulster, principally Cavan and Donegal. At the end of 1847, as donations dried up, the committee wound down its activities. It did not accept (as the Government said) that the Famine was over but it felt that charity towards Ireland had dried up.

In 1848, however, the Quakers decided that instead of providing direct relief to the poor, they would concentrate on providing longer-term assistance, such as fishing tackle, seeds, and farm implements. In response to the deepening distress after the harvest failure in 1848, the committee reconvened in May 1849. It raised and distributed over £4,000 within two months. Money was allocated only to clergymen in the south and west. This reflects the geographical shift in the need for relief. In July 1849 they appealed in newspapers, including the Times, for financial support to enable them to respond to the 200 outstanding applications.

Quakers themselves were personally involved in distributing famine relief, and this took a high toll. At least fifteen Quakers died as a result of famine related diseases. Jonathan Pim collapsed from overwork, and the premature deaths of Joseph Bewley, Jacob Harvey and William Todhunter were blamed on exhaustion. In a period of a year the Quakers had distributed approximately £200,000. Their work was particularly important because it was direct, was based in the communities where it was required, and had no ideological or religious agenda.

5. The involvement of the Catholic Church

The churches played an important part in the distribution of government and private relief. Local priests and ministers were widely praised for their role in helping the poor. Some churches also established their own relief committees to raise funds. The two Catholic bishops who were particularly involved were Archbishop Murray of Dublin and Archbishop MacHale of Tuam. Catholic aid continued beyond 1847, when many other forms of private relief had dried up. The amount collected is hard to quantify but it was probably more than £400,000. Most of this was distributed by local priests in the distressed areas. This avoided much of the expense and delay that marked Government relief.

Because of its overseas network, the Irish Catholic church was able to attract money. Some of the largest amounts were raised by the Catholic parishes in Britain and the United States. The Tablet, the leading English Catholic newspaper, offered to act as a channel for English Catholics to send money to Ireland. By March 1847 Bishop Fitzpatrick in Boston had raised almost $20,000, mostly from local Catholics, though it was meant for distribution to all creeds in Ireland. Apart from donations from outside Ireland, priests in Ireland donated money for the famine poor. James Maher, the rector of the Irish College in Rome, sold his horse and gig for this purpose. The staff and students of Maynooth college made a donation of over £200.

A committee for the Irish poor was established in Rome on 13 January 1847. Pope Pius IX donated 1000 Roman crowns from his own pocket. In addition to personal financial assistance, he also offered spiritual and practical support. In March 1847, he took the unprecedented step of issuing a papal encyclical to the international Catholic com-munity, appealing for support for the victims of the Famine. As a result, large sums of money were raised by Catholic congregations: the Vincent de Paul Society in France raised £5,000; the diocese of Strasbourg collected 23,365 francs; two priests in Caracas in Venezuela contributed £177; Father Fahy in Argentina sent over £600; a priest in Grahamstown in South Africa sent £70; and the Catholic community in Sydney in New South Wales sent £1,500. Despite the unprecedented intervention by Pope Pius IX, the Irish bishops failed to thank him for his donation or for the encyclical letter until forced to do so by Dr Paul Cullen. Cardinal Fransoni, an adviser to the Pope, was also angry because of the laziness of the Irish bishops in fund raising for the poor, though he had given them official permission to do whatever was needed to be done. The thanklessness of the Irish bishops and their wrangling with one another lost them further vital support in Rome. The Pope’s concern and support for Ireland came to an abrupt end in 1848 when the revolutionary struggle in Italy forced him to flee Rome. Nevertheless, his brief interest had a major effect in urging the international Catholic community to support relief in Ireland. But things could be difficult. As the letter from the Bishop of Augsburg demonstrates, transferring money to Ireland could be complicated.

6. The contribution of women

Women were particularly involved in the collection and distribution of private relief. They were encouraged by the early action of Queen Victoria who donated £2,000 to the British Relief Association in January 1847. This made her the largest single donor to famine relief. More important, Victoria published two ‘Queen’s Letters’, the first in March 1847 and the second in October 1847, asking people in Britain to donate money to relieve Irish distress. The first was printed in the main newspapers and read out in Anglican churches. Following its publication, a proclamation announced that 24 March 1847 had been chosen as a day for a ‘General Fast and Humiliation before Almighty God’, and the proceeds were to be distributed to Ireland and Scotland. The Queen’s first letter raised £170,571 but the second raised only £30,167. In fact, the second letter was widely condemned in Britain, and this indicates a hardening in public attitudes towards the giving of private relief to Ireland.

Following the second appearance of the blight, ladies’ associations were formed in Ireland and England, such as the Ladies’ Relief Association in Dublin and the Belfast Ladies’ Association. The Society of Friends also established separate ladies’ committees. Asenath Nicholson, an American evangelist who visited Ireland during the Famine, praised the Belfast women for their hard work and she contrasted their efforts with the laziness of the ladies of Dublin.

One of the most successful of the women’s groups was the Belfast Ladies’ Association. It held its first meeting on 1 January 1847 at the Commercial Buildings in Belfast. It was described as being attended by ‘a large and influential assemblage of Ladies, of all religious denominations’. One of the oldest members was a Miss McCracken, whose brother, Henry Joy McCracken, had been executed as a rebel in 1798. At the first meeting, resolutions were passed and three treasurers, three secretaries, and five sub-committees were appointed. The sub-committees were a Corresponding Committee (to contact the distressed districts), a Collecting Committee (to appeal for subscriptions and donations), an Industrial Committee (to provide employment), the Clothing Committee (to supply clothing and blankets), the Bazaar Committee (to hold a sale of ladies’ work at Easter). Initially the Association was formed for the relief of distressed districts in the west of the country but increasingly during 1847 it became clear that there was famine elsewhere, even in industrial towns such as Belfast. The Association was organised under the direction of the Rev. John Edgar, a noted temperance advocate and Professor of Divinity in the Royal College of Belfast. The Society attempted to counteract the effects of the famine in the west of Ireland by trying to ‘improve, by industry, the temporal condition of the poor of the females of Connaught and their spiritual [condition] by the truth of the Bible’. By 1849 it had collected £15,000 which was used to establish industrial schools in ‘wild Connaught’, where skills such as knitting and needle-work could be taught. By 1850 the Association had employed thirty-two schoolmistresses within the province who worked under the direction of the resident ladies. In the same year, the Association claimed to have offered employment and education to over 2,000 poor girls and women. Its members tried to change the habits and morality of the poor in general by influencing the behaviour of women.

The tragedy of the famine spurred many women into action. An extraordinary range of activity was carried on by women of all denominations. Food kitchens were set up. Committees of women organised the distribution of relief and collected money. Nuns nursed in fever hospitals and fed the starving at their convents. Women philanthropists tried practical solutions to poverty by creating employment for the female poor in cottage industries. Generally, this type of philanthropy was not carried on by charitable societies but depended on the enthusiasm of individual women. The teaching of needlework became an integral part of the education given by nuns to poor children and many laywomen acted as teachers and benefactors in schools where needlework was taught. By 1851 902 children had got these skills in schools. This kind of education was particularly prevalent in Cork. For example, Mrs Meredith opened the Adelaide school in the city, which employed ‘young persons of limited means or reduced circumstances’. Similar work was carried out by the Ladies’ Industrial Society of Ireland, founded at the height of the Famine in 1847 to ‘carry out a system for encouraging and developing the latent capacities of the poor of Ireland’.

Other smaller ladies committees were formed, modelled on the Belfast Society, such as the Newry Benevolent Female Working Society, which provided employment for women in spinning, knitting and needlework.

7. The contribution of the United States

The United States, which had strong connections with Ireland, provided very significant private relief to Ireland—in excess of $2,000,000. A large part was in cash, food, clothing, and blankets. One of the first relief committees was established in Boston at the end of 1845, although most of the relief efforts came after the second failure of the potato crop. The Boston committee, which included many members of the local Repeal Association, blamed the Famine in Ireland on British misrule. In 1847, members of the American Government, including the Vice-President, George Dallas, were involved in giving assistance to Ireland. Jacob Harvey, who co-ordinated relief donations in New York, estimated that in January and February 1846, Irish labourers and servants had sent $326,410 to Ireland in small bank drafts. By January 1847 the payments totalled over a million dollars. There was a more widespread response to the second failure of the potato crop, helped by the fact that the United States had enjoyed a bumper harvest. An attempt was even made by the American Senate to provide $500,000 to Irish relief, though it ultimately failed. The President, James Polk, made a $50 donation: a Boston newspaper declared scornfully that it was too small and had to be ‘squeezed’ out of him. One action of the relief committees in Boston that got great publicity was the sending of two ships (the Jamestown and the Macedonian) full of supplies to Cork. The Jamestown completed the journey to Cóbh in record time. A portion of the food on the Macedonian was distributed in Scotland. Both ships were manned by volunteers. The fact that the United States was in the middle of a war with Mexico made the Government’s grant of permission more noteworthy. In reply to criticisms of the Government for permitting a warship to be used for the benefit of another country, Captain Forbes of the Jamestown, declared: ‘it is not an everday matter to see a nation starving’. A Boston newspaper described the mission of the Jamestown as ‘one of the most sublime transactions in the nation’s history’. Some Cork newspapers used the arrival of the Jamestown to contrast the generosity of the people of the United States with the meanness of the British government. In total, over 100 vessels carrying 20,000 tons foodstuffs, came from the United States to Ireland in the wake of the Jamestown. Although many high-ranking officials become involved in relief, donations came, too, from people who were themselves poor and disadvantaged, such as the Choctaw Indians in the United States. Their contribution of $170 was made through the American Society of Friends.

8. Worldwide aid

The response of people overseas, particularly those of Irish descent and but also of people who had no ties with Ireland, was an important part of private relief. The first donation was raised in India at the end of 1845, on the initiative of British troops serving in Calcutta. It was followed by the formation of the Indian Relief Fund in January 1846 that appealed to British people living in India to start similar collections. They raised almost £14,000. The Freemasons of India contributed £5,000. A contribution of £3,000 was raised in Bombay in one week. The Government of Barbados gave a donation, partly inspired by a donation given by Ireland to them some years earlier. In 1847–48, committees in Australia raised over £10,000. Money was set aside to assist emigration from Ireland to Australia, but was eventually returned to the donors because the committee could not agree about the kind of emigrants to help, whether paupers or able-bodied emigrants. Other donations came from South Africa (£550); St Petersburg, Russia (£2,644); Constantinople (£620); the islands of Seychelles and Rodrigues (£111 and £16); and Mexico (£652). This shows that the Famine had become an event of international significance.

9. Private relief and proselytism or ‘Souperism’

Private charities provided essential relief but the activities of a few were controversial. This is because some private relief was associated with proselytism, that is, missions to convert poor Catholics to Protestantism. Those who changed their religion in return for relief were given disparaging names: ‘soupers’, ‘jumpers’, or ‘perverts’. A few charitable bodies read bibles to the poor to whom they gave food. In the genuine belief that they were saving souls, a small number of Protestant evangelicals used the hunger of the Catholics as an means to convert them. In the west of Ireland, famine missionaries, such as the evangelicals Rev. Hyacinth Talbot D’Arcy and Rev. Edward Nangle, tried to win converts in this way . Some evangelicals believed, no doubt sincerely, that the British Government had caused the Famine by giving a grant to Catholic education, to Maynooth College in 1845: ‘It is done, and in that very year, that very month, the land is smitten, the earth is blighted, famine begins, and is followed by plague, pestilence and blood.’ On the total failure of the potato crop in 1846 there was a quick rise in demand for the services of these missions and by the spring of 1847 they were employing over 2000 labourers and feeding 600 schoolchildren each day. By 1848, the number of schoolchildren attending the mission schools had increased to over 2000, and 3000 adults were employed carrying out relief works, out of a total population of 7,000.

Another well-known missionary who worked in the west of Ireland was Michael Brannigan, a convert from Catholicism to the Presbyterianism and a fluent speaker of Irish. In 1847 he established 12 schools in counties Mayo and Sligo, and by the end of 1848 they had grown to 28, despite ‘priestly opposition.’ Attendance soon dropped when the British Relief Association began providing each child with a half-pound of meal every day, but this ended on 15 August 1848 when funds ran out.

The worries of the Catholic church are well put in a letter from Fr William Flannelly of Ballinakill, Co. Galway, to Daniel Murray, Archbishop of Dublin, 6 April 1849: ‘It cannot be wondered if a starving people would be perverted in shoals, especially as they [the missionaries] go from cabin to cabin, and when they find the inmates naked and starved to death, they proffer food, money and rainment, on the express condition of becoming members of their conventicles.’ The Freeman’s Journal condemned this as ‘nefarious unchristian wickedness.’ The Pope felt worried enough to urge the Catholic hierarchy to oppose the work of missionaries and, on one occasion, he reprimanded the bishops for not doing enough to protect their flocks.

By 1851 the main missions claimed that they had won 35,000 converts and they were anxious to win more. Shortly afterwards, 100 additional preachers were sent to Ireland by the Protestant Alliance. Well-provisioned missionary settlements in such destitute areas as Dingle and Achill Island attracted many converts. The missions were generally opposed by the Church of Ireland. The impact of the missions was, in the end, slight and tended to be localised. Some charitable organisations (including orders of nuns) believed that the distress gave them an opportunity to teach the Irish peasantry ‘good’ habits of hard work. The missions, and even more so the illiberal reaction of the Catholic clergy, tended to encourage sectarianism. Besides, many converts had to go elsewhere because of hostility and contempt in their own communities.

10. After the Famine

There were further crises in Ireland from time to time, and famine threatened again in 1860–62 and 1879–80. Again, international private relief was essential and saved many lives.

However, private relief to Ireland was viewed by some nationalists as another consequence of British injustice. When Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of the Home Rule movement, visited the United States at the end of 1879 he asked that donations be sent to Ireland. But he also accused England of failing to assist Ireland during the Great Famine, and he alleged, falsely, that Queen Victoria was the only sovereign in Europe who gave nothing from her private purse.

There was one important long-term political consequence. The descendants of those who fled to the United States from famine-stricken Ireland kept alive in the Irish-American community a deep feeling of bitterness towards the British government and towards British rule in Ireland. As a result, they were a fertile source of funding for all Irish nationalist movements, parliamentary and military, in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Christine Kinealy